Understanding your horse’s anatomy can help you train him better and prevent injuries that stem from a horse’s activities. Equestrians should be familiar with the parts of a horse to recognize aches and pains in horses or why they may not be performing as well as usual. A horse’s anatomy can get complex, so we’ll focus on its external anatomy and break down the basics parts–from the ears to the hooves–with diagrams, pictures, and important details. If you’ve ever wondered what a horse’s withers, gaskin, or stifle are and why they’re important, you can find out from our list of 39 parts of a horse every equestrian should know.
Why is it important to know the anatomy of your horse?
It’s helpful to understand your horse to prevent injuries and train it discerningly. If you’re purchasing a horse to compete in a particular discipline, its build or conformation should have characteristics that will help it excel in the sport. With a basic knowledge of a horse’s parts and their purpose, you’ll know where it should develop strength when training so your horse can perform his best.
Horse anatomy diagram
39 parts of a horse
Parts of a horse’s head
Horses’ heads come in different shapes and sizes depending on the breed. A horse’s head is very heavy, so horses with smaller heads usually have better speed and agility than horses with large heads. Cold-blooded horses with larger heads make better workhorses, and warm-blooded horses with smaller heads make good racing horses.
The poll is a boney protrusion located right behind the horse’s ears, where the bridle begins. It’s the highest point on the horse’s head and may be more pronounced on some breeds than others. The poll’s many nerve endings make it a spot that’s prone to tension. Tension in the poll can restrict a horse’s mobility and may need massaging to relax the muscles.
A horse’s ears are very flexible and mobile. Horses move their ears to communicate their emotional state or listen intently. A horse is relaxed when his ears sag, angry or fearful when ears are laid back flat, or paying attention up front or behind when ears are pointed forward or swiveled toward the back. Horses can move their ears one at a time to amplify particular noises and hear a wider range of frequencies than we do.
Depending on the type of horse, its forehead may be concave, convex, or flat. Horses’ foreheads can have unique markings, like a blaze or a star, that distinguish them from other horses. The forehead of a young and healthy horse has a shallow hollow, but an older horse may have a more sunken hollow.
The forelock is the tuft of hair that makes bangs on the horse’s forehead. Forelocks come in varying degrees of thickness–some horses have bushy forelocks while others have just a slight wisp of hair. The forelock is more than a feature for some horses–long forelocks protect from weather and insects.
Horses’ eyes are usually dark brown but may be blue on rare occasions. Healthy horses have bright and animated eyes, and dull eyes could be a sign of illness. A horse’s eyes absorb light better than ours do so they can see well in the dark. Horses’ eyes are also positioned slightly to the sides of the head so they can see forward and backward and for better vision while grazing. Their only two blindspots are directly behind and in front of them. Often, when you walk up to a horse to pet its nose, it will raise its head to look at you. People new to horses may think the horse does not like them because it pulls away, but the horse actually just wants to look at you.
The muzzle includes a horse’s mouth, lips, nose, nostrils, and chin. The mouth and nostrils are very mobile. Horses only breathe through their noses and not their mouths, so the nostrils are large and flexible. The teeth reveal how young or old a horse is. Adult horses have more pronounced teeth. Since horses have tunnel vision, they use whiskers to sense objects directly in front of them and to feel around while grazing.
7. Chin groove
The chin grove is the bend directly under the muzzle where the lower lip meets the upper jaw. The chin is sensitive and encourages the horse to make contact with the bit when gentle pressure is applied.
8. Throat latch
The throat latch is located where the jaw and windpipe intersect. The part of a bridle that shares this name sits on the jaw above the throat latch. A throat latch should be trimmed–fat throat latches limit the mobility of the horse’s head.
Parts of a horse’s neck
The horse’s neck helps it maintain balance. A longer neck is good for show jumping since the horse must stretch his neck to clear jumps. And horse’s head and neck help it achieve good balance for dressage. Horses have necks in different shapes. A straight neck is ideal for competitive horses because they’re able to intake air through their trachea easily.
The crest is the top line of the neck and can be more or less distinctive depending on the breed. Horses with a fatter or less distinctive crest can support greater weight and usually make the best workhorses.
The make is the hair that extends down a horse’s neck. It’s a beautiful feature that also protects against weather and insects. Some breeds have a thick mane, while others have a thin one. But for all breeds, a shiny mane is a sign of good health. Since a horse benefits from a mane’s protection from insect bites, be sure to use a horse fly spray if you pull your horse’s mane.
Parts of a horse’s body
We’ll explain the parts of a horse’s body starting with the top line, or the upper curvature of the horse.
The withers is the point at the base of the neck, before the back. When measuring a horse’s height, you start at the withers and measured by the width of a hand (roughly 4 inches).
The back extends from the withers to the loin. It’s the deep curve in the middle of the horse, where the saddle is placed. The back covers vertebrae that help lift the head and control flexion and tension. A shorter back signifies a stronger horse. A long back could be a sign of weaker muscles, a swayback is a sign of a weaker spine, and dropped backs are a sign of aging.
The loin sits between a horse’s back and rear end (croup), directly behind the saddle. The loin should be muscular, but the strongest horses have a broad loin and are bumpy to ride.
The croup is the horse’s rump. It should be oval-shaped and slope gently. The croup transfers power from the hindquarters to move the horse forward. The croup is higher than the withers in horses who run and work hard. But a horse with a high croup carries a lot of weight in his forearms, and a rider may make it unbalanced.
15. Hip point
The hip points stick out at the top sides of the horse’s rear end. These are the joints that enable the horse to move his hind legs. Injuries to the hip joints aren’t as common as other joints and usually result from trauma.
The dock sits at the very back of the horse below the croup. The tail extends from the dock, and the muscles and vertebrae surrounding the dock move the tail.
The tail is the hair that extends from the dock at the end of a horse. A horse’s tail is an extension of its spine that helps steer and balance the horse and serves as a means of communication and a tool to swat away insects.
Shop tail extensions for competitions.
A horse’s chest should be strong but not bulky. A bulky chest weighs a horse down and makes it slower and fatigue faster. On the other hand, a chest that’s too narrow is a sign of a malnourished or poorly developed horse. Horses with either too broad or too narrow chests have an inefficient stride and poor balance.
The barrel is the center section of the horse, from the forequarters to the hindquarters. The barrel includes the back, loin, and torso and incases the ribcage and organs.
A horse’s flank is a slender portion that makes a dent between the barrel and the hindquarters. The dent should not look pinched because a “shallow” flank indicates weaknesses in conformation.
The girth expands from the withers to the barrel and contains the ribcage. Horses with a deep girth are typically preferred for disciplines that require fast work over long distances because of their ability to fully expand their lungs. The “girth” of a saddle gets its name from the part of the horse it fastens around.
Parts of a horse’s legs
Anatomy of the front legs
The front legs of a horse bear most of its weight and function as shock absorption as a horse moves.
A horse’s shoulders run from its withers to its elbow on either side. The slope of the shoulder indicates the smoothness of the horse’s gait. Horses with sloped shoulders have smoother gaits than horses with straight shoulders.
23. Upper arm
The upper arm includes the horse’s humerus which extends from the shoulder to the forearm (or shoulder joint to the elbow joint). The upper arm is short but strong. It supports the horse’s weight, absorbs shock, and moves the knee up and down.
The elbow joint, directly below the horse’s shoulder and above its forearm, helps with flexion and tension of the front limbs.
The forearm is the longest part of a horse’s front limbs. It absorbs shock with the upper arm and disperses the strain of impact, so as you can imagine, horses with long forearms make great jumpers.
26. Carpus (Knee)
The carpus is the horse’s knee, made of several bones joined together. All of a horse’s muscles exist above the knee. From the knee down, a horse’s limbs resemble our hands and fingers. A horse is more likely to sustain an injury below the knee than above it. From the knee down, you can tell if a horse is knock-kneed, bow-legged, or pigeon-toed–each of these defects affect a horse’s gait.
Anatomy of the back legs
A horse’s hindquarters include the hips and thighs and act as a motor that propels the horse forward. The hindquarters are the source of the horse’s power but bear less weight than the forequarters. Strong hindquarters give horses strength for collection.
The stifle joint operates similarly to a human knee and bends the hind limbs forward. The stifle connects the large bone coming from the hip to the large bone of the horse’s hock.
The gaskin is the largest muscle on a horse’s hind leg. It’s located right beneath the hindquarters and functions similarly to a human calf. It works in tandem with the hindquarters to propel the horse forward.
Like a human ankle, a horse’s hock carries the horse’s weight and pushes the leg off the ground. Large, strong hocks are good at absorbing impact and making a horse’s movements efficient.
An ergot is a small callous-like growth on the rear fetlock (the protruding joint at the base of the cannon bone). The reason why horses get ergots is not certain, but they are normal and harmless.
Parts of a horse on both the back and front legs
32. Cannon bone and splint bone
The cannon bone is the large metacarpal below the knee (front) or the hock (back), and the splint bone is the small, bony pencil-like structure behind the cannon bone. These bones resemble the bones in our hands. Because this part of the horse’s leg contains no muscle but several sensitive tendons and ligaments, it’s important to protect them with splint boots during exercise.
A chestnut is a large callous found on any or all of a horse’s limbs above the knee or below the hock. It can be peeled off but is completely harmless, like an ergot.
The fetlock is the protruding joint at the base of the cannon bone that carries a horse’s weight. Active horses are prone to injuring this joint.
Shop fetlock boots to protect your horse’s limbs from injury.
The pastern is the angled portion of a horse’s leg, right above the hoof that consists of two bones, the long and short pastern, or the first and second phalanx. The pastern acts like a pillow for the heel that provides cushion and support between the hooves and the weight of the horse. The length and angle of a pastern influence a horse’s gait.
Parts of a horse’s hoof
36. Cornet band
The cornet band is the line below the pastern that separates the hoof and the leg. This band produces the hoof wall and can be a sign of health or disease in a horse. A healthy cornet band is smooth and dry.
The heel of a horse and a proper heel angle are essential for balance. The heel is soft and has elasticity so it can expand when pressure is applied as a horse moves.
The frog is tissue on the bottom of the hoof in a V-shape that is responsive and flexible to give bounce and absorb shock as a horse walks and runs.
Horses do have toes, but only one on each hoof. The toe at the front of the hoof helps support the horse’s weight, give it leverage, and maintain its balance, just like the great toe on a human foot.
Understanding your horse is key to training and caring for him well. In addition to learning the parts of your horse and how they function, here are a few other ways to keep your horse happy and healthy.
- Hoof care tips for a healthier horse
- How to care for your horse in a hot weather
- How to care for your horse in cold weather
- What to feed your horse and why it matters
- How to deworm your horse
Horses each have unique conformation and characteristics. This makes our horses extra special, but it also makes fitting a horse properly for a new saddle essential but tricky. We’d love to help you find the right fit! Learn how to measure for an English saddle or contact The FarmHouse at 864-457-3557.